Curator’s Corner: Researching Artworks & Artists

Sachi Yanari-Rizzo, Curator of Prints & Drawings

When people think about the FWMoA, they think foremost about our exhibitions, educational programs, and community events. A part of what we do that isn’t quite as apparent is how we take care of the permanent collection that is an integral part to those exhibitions, educational programs, and community events. This blog series touches on the behind-the-scenes work that enables us to preserve the art for future generations to enjoy. Some may not realize that the FWMoA is a custodian for so many types of art—paintings, paper-based, glass, ceramic, textiles, metal, and furniture—all of which have distinct vulnerabilities and needs. It is my hope that this series will help you learn more about our collection practices and inform your own. 

Researching Your Art, Knowing What You Have 

I want to back up a few steps,however, before we get into talking about caring for our diverse collection and discuss a common topic of phone calls which I field from the community: researching artwork. The first thing we do when we acquire a work, whether it is through a purchase or a donation, is to learn more about it, and many people are curious about how to begin this process on their own.   

Researching is a bit like doing detective work, accumulating clues and evidence from multiple sources, so these are some of the things I often recommend alongside general searches online. The Smithsonian American Art Museum and the Art Institute of Chicago also have informative pages on their websites with step-by-step suggestions for researching artworks and artists.   

If the artist is not well known, there are numerous biographical resources that are helpful. I think of these as dictionaries of artists’ names. Each reference may include different people and yield valuable tidbits of information such as birth and death dates, museum collections, and previous exhibitions. It is helpful to consult numerous sources. These entries can lead you down different paths in your pursuit for more information.   

The Getty Research Institute’s Union List of Artist Names is a free online tool that provides additional sources to consult. Who’s Who in American Art was published annually in print form, and the artists covered varied slightly year to year. Now, it is available in digital form through subscription in some libraries. The same group compiled a monumental listing of deceased American artists, active from 1564-1975, which is named, as you may have guessed: Who Was Who in American Art. The Allen County Public Library has useful online resources, including Oxford Art Online, Grove Dictionary of Art, and Benezit Dictionary of Artists, that are available for use with a library card. The library’s art department has valuable reference books with artist listings and the genealogy department may prove helpful with its newspaper databases.   

If you learn that your artist is in a museum collection, it could be worthwhile getting in touch with that museum for biographical information, particularly if the museum has a library. Organizations are proud of their local talent and art museums, historical societies, and public libraries in areas where the artist was born or lived may have collected information. For example, if your artist worked in Brown County, Indiana, potential contacts include the Brown County Art Gallery, Brown County Art Guild, Brown County Historical Society, and the Brown County Public Library. 

This etching depicts a cabin in the woods, surrounded by trees. A low brick wall wraps around the cabin, with stone steps beginning in the foreground drawing the viewer's eye to the house.
L.O. Griffith, American, 1875-1956. Brown County Cabin. Etching, ca. 1920. Museum Purchase, 2019.36. Photo courtesy of FWMoA.

There are books and internet resources focused on artists working in geographic locations, such as A Grand Tradition: The Hoosier Salon and Artists 1925-1990, the Illinois Historical Artist Project, and Artists in Michigan, 1900-1976: A Biographical Dictionary. Other publications have focused on gender, as in Skirting the Issue: Stories of Indiana’s Historical Women Artists, or nationality, as in the Canadian Women Artists History Initiative

A catalogue raisonné can be a helpful reference since it is a comprehensive study documenting every known work by that artist, complete with titles, dates, medium, inscriptions, and dimensions. Since the research is extensive, the biographical information is particularly instructive. However, not all artists have one.  On the other hand, for someone like Pablo Picasso, who was extraordinarily prolific and excelled at working in a variety of materials, separate catalogue raisonnés were published by medium. The FWMoA’s charcoal Portrait of Edie Rickey (1949) will be included in a forthcoming publication on Max Beckmann’s drawings.   

I find catalogue raisonnés particularly useful for researching prints. It allows me to confirm titles, dates, medium, and edition size. If you need help finding a catalogue raisonné title, check out websites like the International Foundation for Art Research or the Print Council of America.   

Some contemporary prints may bear a small embossed image in the lower margin of the paper, called a chop mark or blindstamp (see images below). It is common for artists to work with printmaking workshops, to take advantage of their expertise and facilities. ULAE, Landfall Press, Tamarind Institute, and Tyler Graphics, to name a few, all include their chop mark in their prints. For example, Coronado Studio’s chop is a crown, but others like Lawrence Lithography Workshop design a symbol based on their name or initials.  

The printmaking workshops often write their own books with their published collaborative prints or art museums that house their archives. Lawrence Lithography Workshop’s archive is at the Spencer Museum of Art; Crown Point Press is at the Legion of Honor; Landfall Press is at the Milwaukee Art Museum; and Tandem Press is at the Chazen Museum of Art. The National Gallery of Australia has an extensive website with Kenneth Tyler’s Collection, including history, documentary photographs, videos, chronologies, and bios. For example, the Paradigm Gallery’s own Bob Cross was formerly a master printer for Tyler Graphics and you can learn about his early career when he was part of the team on their website.

If you like to read what the artist said firsthand, then the Archives of American Art is an excellent place to look.  The website includes transcripts and audio files from an array of oral history interviews, including Carmen Lomas Garza, an artist in our permanent collection and who featured in a former “Treasures from the Vault” post!

A family is in their kitchen making tamales. Each family member has their own job, from filling, sneaking bites, to settling them in the pan. In the background, post sit on the kitchen stove.
Carmen Lomas Garza, American, b. 1948. Tamalada. Lithograph, 1990. Gift of June E. Enoch, 1997.13. Photo courtesy of FWMoA.

For my research, the Interlibrary Loan ILL) service at our library is indispensable. This gives me access to a wide array of books and articles.  I frequently use WorldCat to search their catalog records of over 45,000 libraries for titles of books to order, however, some of these books are rare and non-circulating. I have found art museum librarians to be kind enough to answer research questions remotely, as well.   

While art collectors love looking at the art itself, for many the hunt for more information is equally fascinating and enriches the art viewing experience in the end. There are many ways to conduct artist research, so this is just the tip of the iceberg. To learn more about the history of an artwork, and it’s importance to museums and collectors, check out our “Art Term Tuesday” post on provenance.

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